Even though United Way of Franklin County director Meg Pearson is in the middle of her busiest time of the year, she took time Monday afternoon to address the Ottawa City Commission during their Monday study session about an idea to serve the homeless population during extreme circumstances.
Pearson outlined a plan to partner with community providers to provide overnight housing during times of extreme cold or heat.
“Right now, our plan is very simple,” she said. “We would like to have an agreement between many of these organizations. On the coldest nights of the year, we would like to have permission to put people in temporary shelters and possibly on the hottest nights of the summer as well, so in extreme weather.”
Pearson asked the commission to consider adding a zoning classification to allow the use of public buildings for the effort. She said USD 290 has been proactive in identifying students that are in need and she said the need is great.
“USD 290 started working with Communities In Schools to start identifying the homeless population in the school district,” she said. “The last time they sent in their number, they had 173 students that were homeless at that time. This is just USD 290, this is not the rest of our school districts. What this means is these kiddos are precariously homeless. They may be sleeping on a friends couch, they maybe in a car. We don’t see them on the street corners but there is a precariously homeless situation in our community that is very real.”
She said the United Way also gets calls about people who are losing their residency.
“We have a high poverty rate and we need to battle it,” she said. “Who are we if we can’t, at least on the coldest nights of the year, use some public space to put some of these kids in.”
One possible location for the temporary shelter she identified is Celebration Hall because it has a kitchen and showers. She said there are other locations that have been talked about as well.
Sarah Anzicek from the Ottawa Community Development department said the current zoning regulations only allow for group homes.
“They must be licensed by the State of Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services and are not allowed in any commercial or public use district,” she said. “There is very little consistency in other communities about how this issue is defined.”
Anzicek said the Ottawa Planning Commission had three recommendations. They want to continue to allow group homes in residential districts but add a designation of temporary/transitional housing which would provide a facility for overnight housing for purposes of emergency shelter or for persons with limited resources where occupancy is permitted on a 24-hour basis. The final step would be to allow these in public zone and C-4 Central Business District.
No decision was made during the study session. The commission is expected to vote on the zoning changes at Wednesday night’s meeting.
Pearson said there is still work to do in planning for the shelter. She said there have already been discussions about security and other measures to keep people safe and she thinks it’s an important project.
“There are simple things we could do to set this up and I think we could do it well,” she said. “As humans taking care of other humans, it’s the right thing to do.”